Pandora Report: 11.20.2020

The Pandora Report wishes everyone an early (and healthy) Happy Thanksgiving! We will be taking a break to enjoy a virtual holiday with our families, but will return to your inbox in December! In case your missed it, a recording and the presentation slides from the event on current challenges to the CWC are available on our website. If you need some holiday fun, in a new video, Lloyd Davies, an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) expert, rates how realistic the bomb disposal scenes are in popular movies and TV shows.

Thanksgiving in COVID-19

Despite the pandemic fatigue most of us are likely suffering, we need to remain vigilant and compliant with the COVID-19 measures in order to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and all the others around us. Now that we are entering into the winter season and seeking refuge from the cold by congregating indoors, we are also seeing terrible surges in COVID-19 cases. Though we all miss our friends and family after these many months of lockdowns, distance, and quarantines, holiday gatherings pose risks for further escalating our case numbers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has provided recommendations for a safe and healthy Thanksgiving in COVID-19. Of course, staying home and enjoying a virtual Thanksgiving with those outside your household is the best way to limit exposure to and spread of COVID-19.

Travel may increase your chance of contracting and transmitting COVID-19, so staying home is the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones this year. If you decide to travel, make sure that you are following social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines while doing so. Also, whether you will be traveling for Thanksgiving or not, make sure to get your seasonal flu shot ASAP. This year, perhaps more than ever, it is critical that we keep ourselves and those around us as healthy as possible. For those attending an in-person Thanksgiving event, please protect yourself (and your fellow feasters) by wearing a mask, staying at least 6 feet away from those who do not live with you, and washing your hands frequently.

Event Materials – The Resurgent Chemical Weapons Threat: Current Challenges to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)

The Biodefense Graduate Program sponsored an event, The Resurgent Chemical Weapons Threat: Current Challenges to the Chemical Weapon Convention, in preparation for the 25th Session of the Conference of the States Parties on 30 November – 4 December, 2020. The chemical weapons nonproliferation regime is at a crossroads. Chemical weapons have made a comeback with deadly nerve agents being used by Russia, Syria, and North Korea against perceived “enemies of the state.” A new generation of chemical weapons that incapacitate, instead of kill, their victims are also under development. At their next annual meeting, members of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which bans the development, production, and use of chemical weapons, will confront this resurgence in the chemical weapons threat. This week, a distinguished panel of international experts joined in a discussion about how restore the taboo against the use of chemical weapons and how the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) can prevent the further misuse of chemistry.

Dr. Stefano Costanzi is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at American University in Washington DC. Dr. Malcolm Dando is a Leverhulme Trust Emeritus Fellow in the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in the UK. Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders is an independent researcher/consultant on disarmament and security based in France. The event was moderated by Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, Associate Professor and Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

Watch a recording of this event here.

The slide decks from our panelists are available here.

COVID-19 Update

Over the last week, about 1 million more cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the United States. The running total for the US is over 11,720,300 cases and 252,500 deaths. Globally, cases exceed 57 million and deaths exceed 1,363,000. At present, there are two leading vaccine candidates under development in the United States. One is an mRNA-based vaccine developed and produced by Pfizer – co-developed with BioNTech in Germany – and trial findings have shown over 90% efficacy in COVID-19 prevention. Based on the trial data, it is expected that the vaccine will be administered as a two-series with three weeks between the injections. Unfortunately, the serum will likely require cold storage at a temperature of -81o Celsius, a critical constraint that could limit widespread availability and accessibility in many countries. The other candidate is Moderna’s RNA-based vaccine, which is showing over 94% efficacy in preventing COVID-19.  

Federal Efforts Accelerate Vaccine and Therapeutic Development, but More Transparency Needed on Emergency Use Authorizations

Operation Warp Speed (OWS), a partnership between the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Defense (DoD), is the US government’s initiative to accelerate the development of vaccines and therapeutics for COVID-19. Under normal conditions, the vaccine development process takes 10 years or longer, but OWS intends to accelerate that process by completing steps simultaneously. As of 15 October, OWS announced financial support for the development or manufacturing of six COVID-19 vaccine candidates that total more than $10 billion in obligations. It has also revealed financial support for the development of therapeutics, including a $450 million award for the manufacture of a monoclonal antibody treatment (a treatment that uses laboratory-made antibodies, which also may be able to serve as a prevention option). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued four emergency use authorizations (EUAs), which temporarily allow the use of unapproved therapeutics as another method of speeding up access to medical products. The FDA’s rationale for issuing EUAs has not always been clear; therefore, to help ensure public trust, GAO recommends the FDA improve the communication of findings from its safety and effectiveness reviews. GAO also recommends that the FDA “identify ways to uniformly disclose to the public the information from its scientific review of safety and effectiveness data when issuing EUAs for therapeutics and vaccines.” HHS neither agree nor disagrees with this recommendation, but has stated that it shares GAO’s goal of transparency and would explore ways to improve it.

Schar School Power Lunch Recap: Facing the Challenges of Healthcare

The Schar School of Government and Policy hosts a weekly Power Lunch convening political leaders, journalists, and experts to discuss crucial topics affecting the next four years of US public policy. Last week’s lunch featured Dr. Saskia Popescu, assistant professor for the Biodefense Graduate Program; Sarah Kliff, an investigative reporter focused on healthcare for the New York Times; and Tom Daschle, former US Senator (D-SD) and Senate Majority Leader. The discussion focused on the challenges in healthcare created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Professor Justin Gest, the moderator, shared his takeaway:

“Infecting and killing millions, COVID-19 has tested the limits of science, medicine, and healthcare systems in every corner of the globe. Here in the United States, there are debates over the future of the Affordable Care Act and the role of government in the provision of healthcare…Just yesterday, the US recorded more than 145,000 new COVID-19 cases to set a new record-high. In some areas of the country the number of hospitalizations is already pushing hospital staff to the brink.”

Next week’s Power Lunch will focus on economic policy as America looks to the future. See the list of upcoming topics and register here.

Special Forces Bomb Disposal Expert Rates 10 Bomb Disposal Scenes in Movies and TV

Lloyd Davies, an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) expert, rates how realistic the bomb-disposal scenes are in popular movies and TV shows. Davies assesses the land mines in the TV show “SEAL Team” (2018) and other improvised explosive devices in “The Hurt Locker” (2008), “Die Hard with a Vengeance” (1995), and “Bodyguard” (2018). He describes the “red wire, blue wire” movie device from “Juggernaut” (1974) and “Blown Away” (1994). Davies explains that as an EOD operator, you do not “swap between decisions or not do something that you said you were gonna do.” A bomb contains contain at least seven components, which includes a power source, the main explosives, and initiator switches. He also states that, unlike in “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” (2018), an explosive would not have two timers counting down at the same time.

SARS-CoV-2 Origins

The World Health Organization (WHO) debuted its plan to investigate the origins of the pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2. The investigation will start in Wuhan, the city in China where the novel coronavirus was first detected and identified, and expand across China and the globe. Although tracing the trajectory of the virus is important for preventing future spillovers, scientists say the WHO team is charged with a daunting task. Most researchers think the virus originated in bats, but how it made the jump to infect humans is unknown. Discovering the origins of SARS-CoV-2 could take years, and the search must navigate the delicate political situation between the United States and China. Martin Beer, a virologist at the Federal Research Institute for Animal Health in Germany, recommends that the investigation prioritize carnivorous mammals farmed for fur, such as raccoon dogs and civets, which played a role in the SARS outbreak.  A spokesperson for the WHO assures that the search will be guided by science, and “will be open-minded, iterative, not excluding any hypothesis that could contribute to generating evidence and narrowing the focus of research.” Dr. David Relman supports a “deliberative process for investigating the origins of this pandemic.” Relman emphasizes that such an investigation must be “representative of all relevant disciplines, expertise, and stakeholders; must achieve political neutrality, scientific balance, and access to all relevant information and samples; and must operate with transparency and independent oversight.” If the effort lacks these features, its credibility, trustworthiness, and efficacy will be in question.

Diagnostics for Biodefense: Flying Blind with No Plan to Land

The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense released a report, Diagnostics for Biodefense: Flying Blind with No Plan to Land, which highlights the US’s “limited capacity for diagnostic testing and inability to conduct the necessary research to develop these tests quickly.” The report calls on the US government to ensure the ability to rapidly develop point-of-care and point-of-need diagnostic tests for novel, emerging, and reemerging infectious diseases, including COVID-19. The Commission recommends that the Executive Branch purchase viable diagnostics, identify and articulate diagnostic research and development requirements, and leverage defense research and expertise. The Commission recommends that the Legislative Branch require a national plan for COVID-19 testing, increase reimburse for point-of-care and point-of-need tests, increase testing for diseases likely to produce widespread infections, provide multi-year funding for research and development in diagnostics, and leverage defense research and expertise. Read the full report here.

Journal Highlights Groundbreaking S&T Research on Chlorine Spread

Over the last decade, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T), the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), and other US and international partners from across government, industry, and academia have collaborated on Project Jack Rabbit. Project Jack Rabbit is a field and laboratory research program studying toxic inhalation hazards of industrial chemicals, such as ammonia and chlorine. In 2015 and 2016, DHS S&T led the Jack Rabbit II project, which involved several large-scale chlorine release experiments at the US Army Dugway Proving Ground. Nine chlorine release trials were successfully performed, and the research from Jack Rabbit II is in high demand worldwide. In fact, the prestigious peer-reviewed Journal of Atmospheric Environment is featuring this work in a special edition. The special issue will include 18 articles, with two co-authored by the Chemical Security Analysis Center (CSAC). The remaining 16 articles were submitted by subject matter experts and present summary test results used for model inter-comparisons, results from comparisons of different dispersion models, and results of related research regarding flow fields around obstructions and chemical reactions with surface materials. According to Dr. Shannon Fox, Jack Rabbit II principle investigator and director of CSAC, “Jack Rabbit III will expand on previous work and build security, safety and resilience in the chemical supply chain through experimentation over the next five years.”

Coronavirus: Germany Hails Couch Potatoes in New Videos

Our couch was the frontline and our patience was our weapon.” The German government is encouraging staying home through videos offering humorous praise to the nation’s couch potatoes. In the first video, “#specialheroes – Together against corona,” an elderly man looks back on the winter of 2020. He says:

“The fate of this country lay in our hands. So, we mustered all our courage and did what was expected of us, the only right thing. We did nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

Watch the German government’s latest coronavirus advert with subtitles in English here.


Kaiser Health News’ (KHN) latest podcast episode from “What the Health?”  asks what would Dr. Fauci do? Dr. Anthony Fauci is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and has helped guide the US through the HIV/AIDS epidemic, various flu epidemics, as well as outbreaks of SARS, Ebola and Zika. Now, amidst a worsening pandemic, Fauci is stuck between the outgoing Trump administration and the incoming Biden administration. Fauci has faced criticism from Trump and his supporters for not aligning with the outgoing president’s wishes on the pandemic, and with the delayed transition due to Biden not yet being recognized as president-elect, Fauci cannot work with Biden’s team. In a recent interview with KHN, Fauci answers how Americans might expect to live in the next six to nine months. He recommends a universal wearing of masks and a national surveillance system that takes in a large number of tests. Fauci thinks that the country is “going to have some degree of public health measures together with the vaccine for a considerable period of time.”

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